Cooking Up Diversity in Houston: Hop Topic’s Chili Cook-Off
The Inaugural Hop Topic Chili Cook-Off Event at Holler Brewing
by Ruvani de Silva
Back in 2019, three Black beer enthusiasts met through Facebook and decided that they wanted to actively improve diversity and inclusion in the beer community in their home city of Houston, Texas. A pretty big ask for three guys in a city of 7 million people, but Nick Jack, Ken Noble, and AK Babers were more than up to the challenge. From there, Hop Topic World was born. Fast-forward nearly two years and Hop Topic is among the dominant voices working for change in the Houston beer scene, with a reputation that reaches throughout the state and a growing national presence.
Fresh from the huge success of Volume 1 of their Humbled in Humble charity beer collaboration, hosted by Ingenious Brewing, Hop Topic decided to organize a beer-y take on a traditional Texas community event – the chili cook-off. Held at Holler Brewing’s popular downtown taproom, the event included unlimited tastings from all five competition entrants, music, vendors, and a chance to vote for the winning dish.
The first ever chili cook-off was held at the State Fair in Dallas in 1952. However, its much better-known descendant, the annual Terlingua Championship Chili Cook-Off, is the source of inspiration for neighborhood gatherings and charity fundraisers around the country. Many of which are supported by the International Chili Society.
Pairing the time-honored Texan culinary ritual with an afternoon quaffing local craft beer in the winter sun felt like an inspired move by Hop Topic, bringing together local businesses and amateur chefs keen to show off their skills on the stove, as well as a significant contingent of Houston beer folks.
“A chili cook-off is a great way to get people engaged,” says Hop Topic’s Nick Jack, “It’s fun to compete with your friends – plus we thought that chili and beer would be a good combination for the January weather.”
Held outdoors in the space behind the brewery, with socially distanced cooking tents, vendor tables and seating, the event retained the lively but laid-back atmosphere you would expect at a Sunday afternoon brewery party while adhering to strict COVID-safe protocols as per the CDC guidelines. Relaxing in the balmy Houston January sun, we sampled delicious, innovative chili recipes including Tim’s Food Is Better’s complex four-meat, two-bean creation, and Let’s Get Your Key’s cream-corn tomato-free extravaganza Drunken White Chicken Chili, aka The Karen, which was as tasty as it was hilarious.
As a native Brit, the experience of a chili cook-off was a new one for me – I may have seen one in some 80s TV show like The Wonder Years – so I couldn’t have been more excited to be attending my first one as part of Hop Topic’s carefully curated line-up of diversity-forward events. Local businesses including ProRoofs and AK Realty Group supported the event by entering their own teams. Although, the winning spot and $200 prize money was secured by Traci Jack, cooking as team Capitol Chili, who fought off tough competition from all five other teams all by herself.
“I love cooking for fun,” said Traci, “I’m a real foodie and enjoyed the chance to do something that felt like being on Top Chef!” Traci is particularly proud of her recipe, which is lamb-based. “Using lamb in chili is unusual,” she says. As a big lamb fan myself, I was very impressed. Originally from DC, Traci lives locally in Houston, but isn’t a beer fan. “I’m into wine myself, but I wanted to come down and support Hop Topic,” she said, really emphasizing the inclusive, community-focused nature of Hop Topic’s events.
Holler Brewing not only has a perfect space for this type of event and a fantastic view of the Houston skyline, but they also have an extensive range of top-quality beers. We worked our way from the bright, ultra-crisp Foux De Fafa French Pilsner through to the rich, sweet, and boozy rum BA 2020 Blades Barelywine by way of the extremely moreish Nordic Nektar Kveik IPA and dry, liquorice-y Ancient Art Dark Lager, and a few more besides.
Co-owner John Holler says, “We’ve been working with Hop Topic for quite some time, and I’m always amazed to see what we can produce with our powers combined. This event put a lot of smiles on people’s faces. And why wouldn’t it? Imbibe a tank-fresh lager in the middle of the cool open air, taking in the aromas of several varieties of chili being cooked all around you while you watch a live What’s Up in the Cup podcast and tell me you aren’t in heaven”. Nick Jack added, “Holler are one of my favorite breweries in town and have been really supportive- it’s great to collaborate with them.”
As well as a live episode of local beverage-lovers podcast, What’s in The Cup, the event was supported by a number of local brewers, homebrewers, beer writers, and organizers, with Secret Beach Brewing, Thirsty Hermit Brewing, Misfit Brewing, The Pint Exchange and HTX Craft Beer Duo all hanging out.
Houston is really asserting itself as a beer-destination and encouraging the beer community to be welcoming and open will only help it to go from strength to strength. The cohesiveness of the beer scene in Houston thrives on inclusivity, and the way that groups like Hop Topic have successfully integrated and diversified craft beer on a local level is a powerful reflection of the #beerisforeveryone ethos, and it was really fantastic to see everything that these organizations stand for in action – as well as a whole lot of fun. I certainly plan to be at more Hop Topic events, and more chili cook-offs too!